Week in and week out, the Dallas Cowboys may be the best team in professional football. In the regular season. But in the big-money games, those for division or league championships, the Dallas Cowboys are the best team in football at coming up with fascinating ways to lose. Or, as many fans contend, they choke.
In each of the last four years Dallas has played for either a league or a divisional title and each time it has lost. Twice it lost honorably and narrowly to the Green Bay Packers; twice it lost disgracefully and by a wide margin to the Cleveland Browns. Yet in the last four years the Cowboys won more regular-season games than any of the teams in the old NFL.
Coach Tom Landry doesn't deny his club's tendency to choke when a title is at stake. "The hardest championship to win is the first," he once said. "After that a club knows that it is capable of winning and it gains a great deal in confidence."
Last week, before the Cowboys played the Packers in an exhibition game, Landry expanded on his theory. "Success breeds success," he said. "But failure has a carryover effect, too. If we had won that first game against Green Bay for the championship, there's a pretty good chance we could have won the next three. After we lost the second game our chances of winning a third were much worse than after the single loss, and after the third loss, to Cleveland, I think we were at a big psychological disadvantage in the playoff game last year. Once we break the spell we'll be as good as any other team in key games."
The first two losses, at Dallas and Green Bay, certainly don't support the theory that the Cowboys fold in the clutch. The first game was decided in the final seconds. Dallas was on the Green Bay two-yard line. Don Meredith, then the Cowboy quarterback, was hit hard by Linebacker Dave Robinson just as he was throwing a pass. The ball plopped into the hands of Green Bay's Tom Brown. The next year, in Green Bay, the Cowboys played well, only to again lose in the closing seconds, Bart Starr sneaking into the end zone behind the blocks of Jerry Kramer, who got the credit, and Ken Bowman, who didn't. The losses to Cleveland were more decisive (31-20 and 38-14), and a number of Dallas fans, including one high club official, attribute the first defeat to Meredith, the second to Craig Morton, his successor.
"I don't know exactly how to describe Meredith," the official said. "What would you say he was? I mean in his attitude. Flippant? No, I guess that's not really the word. I guess the word I want is frivolous."
Certainly Meredith lacked the determination of a John Unitas or the dedication of a Bart Starr, but it isn't fair to characterize him as frivolous. He was undeniably a flippant man with a fey, wry sense of humor and an occasional tendency to disregard training rules, but on the field he was tough and courageous, and during his last three seasons he played with a series of nagging if not crippling injuries—and with uncharitable boos ringing in his ears.
"I never felt that I gave less than my best when I played," Meredith said recently. "I gave it all I had and I don't know how I could have given any more."
Morton, who took over last year after Meredith's retirement, is also suspected of being frivolous. "I don't think he's as serious about the game as he should be, either," said the same official who criticized Meredith. "I can't understand why a man whose whole life is football can take it so lightly, but I don't know what to do about it."
Morton did little to alter this impression when the club left its California training camp last week to return to Dallas for the Green Bay exhibition game. He missed the plane. He said he hadn't been called in time and had overslept. His excuse wasn't really all that feeble. Four other Cowboys, including Lee Roy Jordan, the middle linebacker who may be the most gung-ho player on the team, missed the plane, too.